This morning, I was having breakfast in the company of a nonagenarian. Seeing him struggle with the food not really meant for old people (puttu & kadala), I asked him not to force himself to finish it. “I should have been asked before I was served. Now I’ll finish it. Waste not. Want not”
My generation was also taught that rule. Waste not, want not. And my mother went a step further in order to drill this virtue in me. Amma told me that for every grain of rice that I wasted, I’d have to spend 10 years in purgatory. My catechism classes took care of frightening me about the horrors of purgatory. It was as bad as hell where tortures were concerned, I was told, but the only redeeming feature was that there was an end to the sufferings in purgatory. Once we serve out our term there (the duration determined by our sins, which included the wasted grains of rice),we’ll be taken up to heaven where all our dear departed will be waiting for us – that is, those among them who escaped damnation!
And so I was terrified about wasting food. I always made sure that nothing except curry leaves and chilly from seasoning were left on my plate, which the cook (ever ready to clarify my spiritual doubts) had told me would not be factored in for calculating the term to be served in purgatory.
An incident comes to my mind, an incident which took place when I was around five years old, and which still makes me feel yucky after all these years.
During the vacation when all the children were at home, kanji (with kadala or payar thoran and curds and pickle) was served for breakfast on a particular day every week. That was my favourite breakfast but my brothers hated it. On one such kanji day, I was the first to enter the dining room. I took my seat, mixed the kanji with curds and kadala, and was beginning to enjoy it when my brother with whom I had quarreled just before breakfast took the seat next to me. I wanted to enjoy my kanji in peace, with no one needling me. So I picked up my plate and moved with it slowly, careful not to spill the kanji almost up to the brim of the plate. Just as I reached my chair far away from the enemy – of-the- day sibling, he shouted out explosively to upset my balancing act – and the plate tilted violently and there lay my kanji on the floor!
I panicked. Images of purgatory with me in it and tongues of flame licking at me rushed to my mind. I dropped on my knees, and with my cupped hands, scooped up all that liquidy (sorry for the usage-but am no longer an English teacher) kanji from the floor, put it back into my plate and started eating it hastily.
As I was finishing, amma came around to see how we were faring at the breakfast table. When she reached me, her foot slipped on the kanji mess on the floor.
“What is this?”
No answer. We continued to have our kanji breakfast with great concentration.
‘I asked you what this is”
No answer again.
Then to me: “Milly. What is that?” Not fair, I thought. No fun being a girl. Always gets picked on first.
I spilled the beans. Had to. No one fools around with amma when she is in that mood.
“How could you do it Milly”, her distress was too much for me. “Eating things from the floor- you must have taken in millions of germs”.
“But I didn’t want to stay forever in purgatory”, I blurted out. My brothers burst out laughing – and so did amma.
I wanted to kick myself for having believed her. Apparently my brothers hadn’t. Why had I been I so gullible?
Then followed a lecture on hygiene, about the dangers of not observing the rules of hygiene (punctuated by the enemy- of- the- day with remarks like “or you’ll have worms crawling out of your nose and ears and mouth” – I wanted to hit him, particularly when I saw amma suppressing a smile at his remark) and a few stiff remarks on my lack of common sense. My enemy -of- the-day brother suggested that I be given a dose of castor oil which amma thought was a good idea.
That did it. I started bawling at that and made for the originator of that idea. Amma got in between, sent me firmly back to my chair and gave me a dressing down; another lecture followed, this time on ladylike behaviour, to which the villain sibling nodded his head in agreement.
It always ended up like that – with that reminder that ‘after all you are a girl - - - -